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Underground Uprising: Petersburg Activists Take Guerrilla Message To Russian Masses

Posters in the St. Petersburg subway calling out members of the "Shameful Regiment."
Posters in the St. Petersburg subway calling out members of the "Shameful Regiment."

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Commuters in Russia's northern capital saw an unusual sight earlier this month when many subway cars were briefly decorated with posters depicting selected officials as part of a "Shameful Regiment."

President Vladimir Putin, for instance, was featured in the protest -- which mimics the government propaganda campaign, Immortal Regiment, in which Russians are urged to march with photos of people who died in World War II -- with the caption "a liar who supported raising the retirement age" over his visage.

Another poster featured St. Petersburg police General Sergei Umnov with the caption: "Gave the order for the brutal dispersal of Petersburg protesters on September 9, including women and children." It was a reference to the forcible dispersal of one of dozens of demonstrations across the country against a plan to raise the retirement age, resulting in at least 452 detentions in St. Petersburg alone.

The posters, which quickly made the rounds on social media, were the handiwork of Agit Rossii, a relatively new political protest movement that aims to find new methods of political expression in the face of the authorities' stepped-up efforts to crack down on open opposition.

"Our actions are a pretty natural reaction to the political environment created by the authorities," one Agit Rossii activist, who asked to be identified by the name Daniil, told RFE/RL.

Over the last two years, Russia has been rocked by waves of protests against Putin's continued rule, generally, and, more specifically, against the government's decision to raise retirement ages. Thousands of people have been detained at such protests, often after being manhandled by police or government supporters, such as members of the SERB nationalist group or pseudo-Cossack formations. At the same time, state domination of the media means that ordinary Russians hear next to nothing about such events.

'Street Agitation'

As a result, Agit Rossii founders have pledged to find new ways to take opposition political messages to new audiences and to contradict the image of national unity that the Putin government attempts to project. It uses the Soviet-era term "agitatsiya," meaning making efforts to increase political awareness and activity.

"We think street agitation is very useful because it is targeted at people who don't normally attend opposition events or read their media," Daniil said, "but who basically get their information from the television. Through street agitation, these people can learn something new and can form doubts about the picture of the world that they usually see on television."

It is an approach that Agit Rossii and like-minded activists have dubbed "actionism." Sympathetic members of the public are invited to amplify their protests by sharing photos on social media. On Agit Rossii's page on the VK social-media site, people are invited to print out the Shameful Regiment posters to carry out their own under-the-radar protests, such as stuffing them into mailboxes.

In October, Agit Rossii marked Putin's birthday by unfurling a giant banner reading "Petersburg Against Putin" on a bridge across the Neva River.

The banner on the bridge across the Neva River reads "Petersburg Against Putin."
The banner on the bridge across the Neva River reads "Petersburg Against Putin."

The group also protested earlier this month against a visit to the city by the staunchly pro-Kremlin television moderator Vladimir Solovyov. Agit Rossii member Pavel Ivankin was sentenced to 10 days in jail for purportedly refusing to obey a police officer in connection with that protest, during which the activists plastered Shameful Regiment posters of Solovyov all over the venue where he was scheduled to speak.

"We are positioning ourselves as the distributors of opposition ideas and campaigning," Daniil explained.

Another Agit Rossii activist, Grigory, told RFE/RL he has been encouraged by the generally positive reactions of people exposed to Agit Rossii's messages.

"At such moments, it is nice to realize that our protest activity is not useless and that the opinions we express about certain individuals, officials, and the government generally coincide with the public's views," Grigory said.

'Cynicism And Fakery'

Other, more established opposition groups have welcomed Agit Rossii's innovations.

"If there are activities that attract the attention of the relatively apolitical parts of society, then that is very good," said Maria Lakhina, of the Vesna democratic movement. "People begin thinking. They start discussing the action itself and then move on to recognize the underlying problems. Actionism is very good and is needed to reach a mass audience."

Andrei Pivovarov, chairman of the Open Russia movement, also praised actionism as a way for young people to be heard.

"I think the appearance of such structures and large groups of young people who don't think of themselves as politicians is pretty natural," Pivovarov said. "It is the reaction of thinking people to what is happening in this country. Everyone wants to express themselves. Some arrange performances. Some organize roundtables. Some carry out direct-action protests. We can see that young people are revolting. They understand that we can't continue in this way and are turning to various forms of protest."

Official efforts to dissuade public dissent in recent years have included the jailing of opposition leaders like Aleksei Navalny, tighter laws to restrict public gatherings, and prosecutions for disseminating or even "liking" social-media posts that stray from the government line.

"It is youth's response to the cynicism and fakery that we see from the government," Pivovarov said of a possible actionism groundswell. "And I am sure that such actions of civil protest will become more and more common."

In fact, the Shameful Regiment idea was not born in St. Petersburg, but rather thousands of kilometers away in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. In August, local activists there marched with photographs of politicians who supported the reviled pension reform.

In Perm on November 11, an effigy with Putin's face on it appeared on a central square with the word "liar" across its forehead and a sign calling him a "war criminal" on its chest. The happening was noted in a social-media post by the group Overheard In Perm that has been "liked" almost 2,500 times and shared 176 times.

One person commented on the post, "I am afraid for those who did this." Another wrote, "The people are waking up."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by Tatyana Voltskaya

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